Berlusconi's brother accused over obtaining confidential wiretaps

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The Independent Online

The brother of Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi is under investigation for illegally obtaining confidential wire-taps that were then printed in the family's newspaper Il Giornale. The Milan prosecutor believes Mr Berlusconi's brother, Paolo, the owner of Il Giornale, broke the law by publishing a confidential tape he allegedly received while his brother was present before it had been logged by magistrates as evidence.

The news comes as the Prime Minister is trying to bulldoze through parliament a controversial bill that would limit the use of bugged conversations by police and magistrates. Mr Berlusconi's critics say the law is designed to spare the media mogul further embarrassment following the emergence of taped conversations that have engulfed him in a series of scandals in the past 18 months. Recordings of sensitive conversations frequently find their way onto Italy's front pages.

The right-wing Il Giornale published on 31 December 2005 the contents of a conversation, recorded in July that year, between the leading left-wing politician, Piero Fassino, and Giovanni Consorte, the former chairman of Unipol, a group of insurers historically linked to the Democratici di Sinistra, Italy's former Communist Party.

The recording is thought to reveal the men discussing Unipol's progress in taking over a major Italian bank, the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL), something that would have been anathema to the Italian right. Mr Fassino is heard exclaiming "We have a bank", although the takeover bid ultimately failed.

A week before the Il Giornale article, on Christmas eve at the Prime Minister's mansion at Arcore, near Milan, Paolo Berlusconi is thought to have received the tape from Roberto Raffaelli, the owner of the research organisation RCS which had been contracted by investigators to make the wiretap. Silvio Berlusconi and another person, Fabrizio Favata – an associate of Paolo Berlusconi and Mr Raffaelli – were present, and all four listened to the tape before it was handed over to the newspaper owner.

Last week, Mr Favata was arrested for allegedly blackmailing Mr Raffaelli to the tune of €300,000. Magistrates say he had threatened to tell the police that Mr Raffaelli had illegally handed over their recordings if he wasn't paid. He denies the charges. He was refused bail by a Milan magistrate on Monday.

The Prime Minister is not under investigation. Investigators suspect his brother took the lead in events.

However, news of the investigation into the Il Giornale story is likely further to anger critics of Mr Berlusconi's attempts to limit the use of wiretaps by investigators and introduce harsh penalties for journalists who print them without a judge's permission.

Mr Berlusconi says the new law is needed to protect privacy in the face of constant leaks from courts to newspapers. Embarrassing details of his trysts with show girls and prostitutes have emerged from leaked wiretaps.

His critics say the proposals go too far. Opposition MPs, magistrates and the police say investigations could be hamstrung if the bill becomes law. Investigators will in most cases need strong evidence that a crime has been committed before they can secretly tape conversations. Magistrates claim that wiretaps are in many cases the best sources of evidence.

The bill is currently passing through parliament. However, dissent from more moderate members of Berlusconi's coalition government mean it might yet be watered down.

Italian wiretaps

* Two of the Sicilian mafia's most notorious bosses, Bernardo Provenzano and his brutal predecessor Toto Riina, were captured thanks to wiretaps. By seizing Riina after sustained surveillance, investigators were able to stop the mobster's brutal bombing campaign that rocked Italy in 1992-93.

* Angelo Balducci, a former member of the board of Italy's public works department, was arrested in February for alleged corruption, thanks in part to wiretaps. During the investigation, they tapped his telephones and subsequent leaked recordings revealed the existence of a male prostitution ring in the Vatican.

* The Tangentopoli scandal of the early 1990s relied heavily on wiretaps. Investigations by Milan magistrates uncovered an astonishing web of corruption involving business and politics that saw the Christian Democrat and Socialist political establishment swept away in a stroke. Under a new bill, investigators will not be able to record MPs, except in special circumstances.

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